6 TV Shows That Portray Strong Women in Lead Roles

These shows pass the Bechdel test, with flying colors.

Sep 11, 2015

When it comes to female leads, it doesn't get much stronger than Leslie Knope

Have you heard of the Bechdel test? Named for feminist cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test is pretty simple: to pass, a movie or television show needs to fill three criteria:
1. It must include at least two women,
2. who have at least one conversation,
3. about something other than a man or men.

Sounds simple, right? Surprisingly, media that checks all three boxes is the exception rather than the norm. The powerful thing about the Bechdel test is that once you’ve heard about it, you’ll always ask yourself the following questions about the TV shows you love: Do they treat men and women as equals? Do female characters have important roles in non-romantic storylines? Are the women interacting with each other?

These six TV shows, spanning a range of genres, put women in the spotlight to differing degrees. What they hold in common is that they portray strong women as three dimensional characters who are friends, leaders and professionals - on top of their roles as daughters, wives and mothers.  

And of course, they all pass the Bechdel test.

1. PARKS AND RECREATION

STARRING: Amy Poehler
GENRE: Comedy

Get ready to laugh - a lot. In this absurd sitcom, Leslie Knope plays an ambitious, loveable bureaucrat who works tirelessly for the Parks Department of a small town in Indiana. Inspired by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi, Knope believes in the power of good government - so much so that she aspires to become the first female President of the United States.

The cast of Parks and Recreation, headed up by Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope

The cast of Parks and Recreation, headed up by Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope 

2. THE GOOD WIFE

STARRING: Julianna Marguiles
GENRE: Drama

This show tells the story of Alicia Florrick, the wife of a former state’s attorney who went through a public corruption scandal. After spending years in the politics of being a “good wife” Alicia goes back to work as litigator at the firm Stern, Lockhart & Gardner - and proves herself to be a gifted, personable and sensitive lawyer. Firm partner Diane Lockhart also deserves a mention - this character holds her own in the boys club of the legal world, always with wit and class.

Alica Florrick rocking it in the courtroom

Julianna Marguiles as Alica Florrick, rocking it in the courtroom 

3. GAME OF THRONES

STARRING: Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams and Gwendoline Christie - among many others.
GENRE: Drama, Fantasy, Adventure

How to sum up the intricate saga that is Game of Thrones? The TV show is ostensibly about nine noble families fighting for control over the mythical land of Westeros, but the real pull of the story comes down to the people in those nine families - their relationships, loves, plots and victories. Among many prominent women in varying positions of power are the queen of dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, the defiant young Arya Stark, and the noble warrior Brienne of Tarth.

Emilia Clarke plays Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons

Emilia Clarke plays Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons

4. VEEP

STARRING: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
GENRE: Comedy

In this political comedy Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, Vice President of the United States. She is the quintessential politician narcissistic, ambitious, and sarcastic - but she’s a woman, which makes the show quite different from other TV shows of its class. The show follows Meyer and her staff as they try to make their mark on Washington and the world. Hilarious, thought-provoking and inspiring all at once.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Veep

5. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

STARRING: Taylor Schilling, Danielle Brooks, Kate Mulgrew and Laura Prepon, among many others
GENRE: Drama, comedy

This TV show begins with the story of Piper Chapman, a middle-class woman in her 30s who is sentenced to 15 months in prison for a decade-old crime. As she serves her sentence, Chapman gets to know a cast of strong, sensitive and straight-up hilarious women - each with their own backstory. Now three seasons in, the show has fleshed out to a series of full-life portraits of women in prison, highlighting issues of race, gender and socio-economic strata in an entertaining and digestible way.

The cast of Orange is the New Black - strong, real women

The cast of Orange is the New Black - strong, real women

6. ELEMENTARY

STARRING: Lucy Liu
GENRE: Drama

In this modern version of Sherlock Holmes, Lucy Liu plays Dr. Joan Watson, the “sober living partner” to the recovering addict detective. At first their relationship is strictly professional, but the two grow to understand each other and form a strong friendship. One of the strongest feminist elements of this show is that it doesn’t take the obvious romantic path for the female and male leads - the blooming bond between Watson and Holmes retains a purely platonic, equal tone.

Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, partner to Sherlock Holmes

Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, partner to Sherlock Holmes

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